Black America's silent majority

May 27, 1994|By Hugh Pearson

FOR YEARS now, the same regrettable scene has played itself out repeatedly all over the country.

A young black man is beaten or killed by the police -- usually after having committed a crime -- and a large group of black people march on city hall or police headquarters, demanding justice.

Consider Ernest Sayon, who died in police custody on April 29 after he had been arrested at the scene of a drug deal in a public housing project on Staten Island, N.Y.

Or the scuffle in January at a Harlem mosque.

Or Rodney King's beating by the Los Angeles police 1991 -- after he was found driving drunk more than 90 miles per hour leading police on a high-speed chase.

Yes, police brutality is a serious problem and an inexcusable abuse of power. But blacks should bear in mind that it is not their greatest threat. They have more to fear from their own community.

There is a much more common scenario in urban life than that of racist police on a rampage: A law-abiding black man or woman is senselessly murdered by a black male youth.

On May 7 it was James Todd, a 65-year-old retired plumber, who stopped at a store in a middle-class neighborhood of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant area to get groceries and a TV Guide.

He accidentally bumped into a teen-ager and apparently didn't say excuse me, or didn't say it fast enough or with an appropriate degree of respect. According to a witness, the boy felt "dissed."

An argument ensued, then Todd left. As he walked home, the teen-ager caught up to him on a bicycle, pulled out a gun and shot him point-blank in the head. Todd died instantly.

This month, the New York Times profiled 15-year-old Shaul Linyear, also of Brooklyn.

The article told us that Shaul felt his three-month-old basketball sneakers "was messed up." He said, "I'd walk down the block and people who know me would start laughing."

So, to get money for a new pair, he robbed and killed a Dominican-American man who was delivering candy bars to a bodega.

Hundreds of such senseless killings occur every year, but the black community's reaction is tepid compared to what occurs when a less than totally innocent black youth gets brutalized by the police.

Had Linyear been arrested in the store and killed in a struggle with the police before he could commit the murder, throngs of blacks would have marched on City Hall, demanding justice.

We can be sure that his mother would have cried before the TV cameras and demanded that the police officer who killed her "baby" be brought to swift justice.

We can be certain that the rabble-rousing, so-called black leaders that the media promote as spokesmen for all black New Yorkers would be angling for a way to gain political mileage from the death.

Though I was no admirer of Richard Nixon, I think he aptly described his supporters as a "silent majority" -- a white electorate that allowed antiwar protesters to grab the headlines but managed to elect him president twice.

What about black America's silent majority? It, too, exists.

It can be found in New York City: in stores and restaurants along Brooklyn's Church and Nostrand Avenues, in brownstones in Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, West Baltimore and elsewhere.

That silent league is composed not only of African-Americans but also immigrant Haitians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Senegalese and others.

This great mass of African-Americans must now break its silence. We must admit that the biggest problem for blacks is not police brutality but Shaul Linyear and the cyclist-assassin of James Todd -- kids who have no conscience.

Let's stop coddling them and feeling embarrassed about speaking out against them. Our predictable laments about white racism are inducing a huge yawn in the rest of America.

We must also protest that upstanding black men such as Todd are noticed only after being shot in the head, while loud-mouthed black rap stars generate publicity every time they issue another misogynist record or commit another senseless crime.

As Willy Loman warned in "Death of a Salesman," the woods are burning. And the principal victims are not whites.

They are the great silent majority of hard-working, decent African-Americans.

Hugh Pearson, an editor at Pacific News Service, is author of the forthcoming "The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America."

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